Driving under the influence is considered a crime in every state. So, DUI charges are handled in criminal court. You have a right to represent yourself in criminal court. But most defendants either hire a private lawyer or are represented by a public defender appointed by the court.
This article goes through some of the factors you might want to consider before deciding what kind of legal representation is best for you.
Getting a Lawyer’s Opinion About Your Case
It’s difficult for someone with no legal experience or training to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a DUI case. DUI law is complicated and constantly changing, and the facts of every case are unique. So, getting the opinion of an experienced DUI lawyer can be valuable.
Most DUI lawyers give prospective clients a free consultation. But even if you have to pay a small fee, it’s likely money well spent. Bring your police report and any other case documents you have to the consultation to make the best use of your time. It might also help to bring a list of questions you want to get answered.
You don’t have to hire an attorney you consult with. But meeting face-to-face is a good way to gauge whether things could work out with an attorney you’re thinking of hiring.
Generally, all criminal defendants have the right to an attorney. If you can’t afford to hire your own lawyer, the court will appoint one for you. Appointed attorneys are normally from a public defender’s office.
Public defenders handle a large number of criminal cases, including lots of DUIs. So, most public defenders are quite familiar with DUI law and defenses. Public defenders are generally well acquainted with the district attorneys and judges and know their tendencies—knowledge that can be beneficial for plea bargaining. Public defenders also tend to have good trial skills because they take a lot of cases to trial.
However, being represented by a public defender has its downsides. Public defenders have large caseloads. So, some defendants feel like they and their case don’t get enough attention. And you don’t get to choose your public defender—you get who you get. Public defender representation is also limited to criminal court. A DUI arrest normally leads to two separate proceedings: “administrative per se” proceedings with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and a criminal court case. Generally, defendants who have a public defender will have to deal with the DMV proceedings on their own.
When you hire a private DUI lawyer, it’s typically to represent you in DMV proceedings and criminal court. Having the same attorney work on both aspects of your case can lead to better outcomes, including a shorter license-suspension period.
Most defendants see the price as the major drawback with private lawyers. Hiring a private DUI lawyer will generally cost you between $1,000 and $5,000. If your case goes to trial, it can be even more expensive. (And there are cases where spending the money for a private lawyer won’t get you a more favorable outcome than had you gone with the public defender.)
However, hiring a private DUI attorney (assuming you can afford one) can be well worth it. Of course, when you’re retaining an attorney, you get to decide who that attorney will be. Attorneys who specialize in DUI cases often have an in-depth understanding of DUI law and defenses that other attorneys don’t have. In some cases, this expertise can lead to more satisfactory results—perhaps, a better plea bargain or dismissal of the charges altogether.
Having a private lawyer can also minimize the time you have to spend in court. In some areas, public defender clients must personally appear for all court dates. With private counsel, on the other hand, you usually won’t have to be present for routine court appearances. For many people, especially busy professionals, not having to miss work to come to court is a significant perk.
Another benefit of hiring an attorney is you’ll typically get more one-on-time than you would with a public lawyer. Most people feel more comfortable with their case when they get all their questions answered and concerns addressed.